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Jewish delis are on the decline, but evolving thanks to a new generation

An exhibit on display in New York City explores the history of Jewish delis.
An exhibit on display in New York City explores the history of Jewish delis.

In the 1930s, there were at least 1,500 Jewish delis in New York City alone. Now, only 300 remain countrywide and only a few dozen in the Big Apple, according to the New York Historical Society.

The history and future of the Jewish deli are featured in an exhibit that is touring the country named “I’ll Have What She’s Having,” a reference to the famous scene in “When Harry Met Sally” that was set in Katz’s Delicatessen in New York.

The popularity of the classic Jewish deli, which featured kosher eats like whitefish salad, pickles, and corned beef, has declined. But a new generation of chefs is bringing their ideas to a classic they remember from their upbringings.

In Washington, D.C., bagel lovers opened a tongue-in-cheek “Jew-ish Deli,” Call Your Mother. It’s the first place President Joe Biden dined as president. Mort & Betty’s in Los Angeles serves classics of Jewish cuisine that are veganized, including “corned beets.”

We take a tour of the exhibit guided by Jessie Kornberg, president & CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, then turn to our guests to learn more about the unique place the kosher deli holds in American Jewish culture and beyond.

An exhibit on display in New York City explores the history of Jewish delis.

Shapiro's Delicatessen in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Holocaust survivor Rena Drexler opened Drexler's Deli in Los Angeles, California.

Abe Lebewohl was the owner of Second Avenue Deli in New York City.

“I’ll Have What She’s Having: The Jewish Deli” is on display at the New York Historical Society through April 2, 2023. It heads then to the Holocaust Museum Houston from May 4, 2023 to Aug. 13, 2023, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, Ill., from Oct. 22, 2023 to April 14, 2024.

Copyright 2023 WAMU 88.5

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Avery Jessa Chapnick